Doomed ships sail into an icy mys­tery

Even the might of Vic­to­rian Bri­tain was not enough to beat the Arc­tic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Steve Creedy

Franklin’s Lost Ex­pe­di­tion 9.35pm, ABC1

JOHN Franklin’s ill- fated ex­pe­di­tion to dis­cover the North­west Pas­sage in the mid- 19th cen­tury re­mains one of the great mys­ter­ies.

Al­though frag­ments of the story have emerged through the years, no one has yet pieced to­gether the whole nar­ra­tive of what hap­pened to the for­mer Tas­ma­nian gov­er­nor and his two pur­pose- built ships. His dis­ap­pear­ance dur­ing his fourth ex­pe­di­tion to find the fa­bled Arc­tic pas­sage to Asia caused a furore in Vic­to­rian Eng­land and sparked what is still con­sid­ered one of the most ex­pen­sive res­cue ex­pe­di­tions in mod­ern his­tory.

Franklin set out in May 1845 with 134 sailors and of­fi­cers in the Ter­ror and Ere­bus to thread his way through the maze of ice and is­lands north of Canada. His de­ter­mi­na­tion was un­der­scored by the fact he had five years’ worth of food, in­clud­ing 8000 tins sealed us­ing a new method.

The ships were equipped not only with sails but with steam en­gines and pro­pel­lers, and the bows had been re­in­forced with iron to break through the ice. But even the might and hubris of Vic­to­rian Bri­tain was not enough to beat the Arc­tic el­e­ments.

A frag­ment of jour­nal found in a cairn in­di­cated Franklin died two years into the ex­pe­di­tion, al­though some of his men sur­vived much longer. Re­ports from Inuit peo­ple sug­gested the ships were stranded, and sub­se­quently sank, off the bar­ren coast of King William Is­land.

The Inuit also re­ported find­ing mu­ti­lated bod­ies that they be­lieved were linked to can­ni­bal­ism, a re­port that caused even more con­ster­na­tion in Vic­to­rian Bri­tain, and said they had seen about 40 men drag­ging sleds.

Us­ing a mix of his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive and in­ter­views with mod­ern sci­en­tists, this ab­sorb­ing doc­u­men­tary looks at var­i­ous the­o­ries about what hap­pened to the ex­pe­di­tion and sub­se­quent at­tempts to solve the rid­dle.

The ex­huma­tion of the three crew buried in graves and ex­am­i­na­tion of the re­mark­ably pre­served bod­ies showed each con­tained high lev­els of lead, lead­ing to one the­ory that sol­der in the cans poi­soned the crew. An­other is that some of the early deaths were as re­sult of bot­u­lism.

Ei­ther way, the ships have never been found, nor has Franklin’s grave or log. What seems cer­tain is that the ex­plorer, work­ing with lit­tle or no knowl­edge of the coast, took a trag­i­cally wrong turn and found him­self in an area where ice ag­gre­gated as it was pushed down by the wind from the Arc­tic.

Once trapped, the men’s fate was sealed, de­spite the valiant at­tempt by some to es­cape over­land. The mys­tery re­mains but, sur­pris­ingly, peo­ple are still out there search­ing. As one sci­en­tist notes at the end of the doc­u­men­tary, there is al­ways the tan­ta­lis­ing pos­si­bil­ity that a box buried some­where be­neath the ice con­tains a jour­nal with the miss­ing pieces to this 160- year- old puzzle.

Crushed dream: A scene from Franklin’s Lost Ex­pe­di­tion

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